Japan's prime minister weakened by arrests, scandals in ruling party

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

TOKYO -- Arrests, scandals and sliding poll numbers are hobbling the four-month-old government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama as it tries to pass a stimulus bill intended to prevent the world's second-largest economy from tumbling into a double-dip recession.

Over the weekend, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan was shaken by the arrest of three current and former aides to Ichiro Ozawa, the party's number-two leader and top political tactician.

The three, who include a member of parliament, were charged with falsifying party fundraising reports in connection with the purchase of land in Tokyo.

Ozawa's refusals to answer prosecutors' questions about his role in the land deal are souring the public on him and on the new government, according to three polls published Monday. The Democratic Party of Japan took power last fall after it crushed the Liberal Democratic Party in a historic election that ended half a century of nearly continuous one-party rule.

Now, about 70 percent of the public wants Ozawa to quit as his party's secretary general, according to polls released by the Kyodo news service and the country's two most influential newspapers, the Yomiuri and the Asahi.

For the first time, more voters disapprove than approve of Hatoyama's government, according to the Kyodo poll. As the land-purchase scandal has engulfed the ruling party in the past week, the government's approval numbers have slid by about 10 percentage points, into the mid- to low 40s.

Ozawa, though, is not backing down. At a party convention over the weekend, he said no shady money was used in the land purchase. He also accused prosecutors of playing politics as they resorted to raids and criminal arrests for matters that could be cleared up with amended fundraising reports.

"If this is allowed, the future of Japanese democracy will be very dark," said Ozawa, who has a history of feuding with prosecutors. He was forced last summer to resign as his party's leader, after a longtime aide was indicted in an unrelated fundraising scandal.

Based on the weekend convention, the Democratic Party of Japan leadership appears to be adding prosecutors to the list of bureaucrats it accuses of continuing to serve the interests of the defeated Liberal Democratic Party.

At the convention, Hatoyama, the subject of a separate fundraising inquiry over campaign funds from his wealthy mother, urged Ozawa to stay on as a party leader and fight the prosecutors.

Ozawa, 67, masterminded his party's landslide victory last year. He is again its chief strategist for elections this summer to the upper house. Often called the "shadow shogun" by the Japanese press, his political savvy gives him power inside the government that rivals or even exceeds that of the prime minister, many analysts say.

As parliament convened for a new session on Monday, Finance Minister Naoto Kan instructed lawmakers to focus on reviving Japan's economy, which is faltering again after coming out of a severe recession last year. Deflation and deteriorating job numbers have forced the government to add extra spending to its $1 trillion budget.

"The earliest possible passage of this extra budget and related bills is necessary so that we can address the current severe economic situation and ensure an economic recovery," Kan said.

Opposition parties, however, may try to delay passage of the budget until Ozawa agrees to fully account for his involvement in a murky land-purchase deal, which allegedly was made six years ago with about $4 million from Ozawa's political fund.

Prosecutors have told Japanese newspapers that one of the DPJ members arrested over the weekend has said that reports on Ozawa's campaign spending were deliberately falsified.

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